“Not all the people of the Mediterranean manage to become Mediterraneans,” wrote Predrag Matvejevic in his Mediterranean Breviary. His is a vaguely oracular judgment, very much in the style of this Croatian intellectual. If you think of the perception of the Balkan countries we still have in the West, his sentence seems strikingly true. Indeed, the Slav peoples, who live just beyond the “turbulent” Adriatic coast, have not yet entered into a common European mental geography, much less a Mediterranean one. They remain “the other Europe,” cut off from the great tourist flows, perennially on the verge of annexation into the European Union, their character still somewhat exotic and hard to decipher. The voyage along the Danube recounted by Claudio Magris in his 1986 book, Danube, was one of the first to offer an empathetic view of that world. And yet, once he had left behind the glow of Vienna and the Parisian style of Budapest, the stops along the river journey began to seem distant and unfamiliar, as though he was sailing down the Zambezi and not one of the most important axes of Western civilization.
These days, the perception is less fuzzy, but the sense of otherness remains. Let's think, for example, of food, of agricultural products, of gastronomy—in other words, the central themes of our movement. Despite all the media coverage of the subject, when did you last read about a Slav chef? Is it possible that not a single one exists capable of standing alongside the usual familiar names? Or maybe we just don't know enough about this world. When it comes to European specialties, which Balkan salami or oil or cheese springs to mind?
We at Slow Food have been among the few to turn our attention to the region, setting up a few Presidia, listing some endangered products on the Ark of Taste and focusing on the region during the last Salone del Gusto and Terra Madre, when we welcomed local food communities and talented chefs like the Altin Prenga from Albania. We have found in these countries a great enthusiasm for their typical foods, a strong interest in issues that demand further exploration. With great effort, civil society is starting to rediscover traditions half buried by history, shaking off the silence of half a century of socialism and the standardization originally imposed by the Turkish occupation. Rediscovering local products and traditional recipes means reactivating channels of communication with a past that seemed as if it had been erased forever. At times, it means fighting against institutions that have decided to devote themselves to modernity, to European laws, to a misconception of food safety.
Yet pastoralism is still very much alive in almost all the mountain areas of the Balkans. In Bosnia they raise Domaca Balkanska Rogata goats and Busha and Gatako cattle, which have adapted to the poor pastures, and Pramenka sheep. Milk from these breeds is used to make the cheeses of Vares, the more famous ones of Livno and the Presidium Cheese in a Sack, Sir iz Mijeha. Most are made from a blend of milks in varying proportions, depending on the season, produced in the mountains and sold on the local market. Moving up towards Bulgaria and the Stara Planina massif, we find more sheep's cheeses, made from the milk of the Tetevan breed, one of the smallest in Europe. The cheeses are made in mountain dairies in the summer, then matured in cellars in Tcherni Vit. Here the specific climatic conditions and humidity favor the veins of noble molds that mottle Zeleno Sirene, “green cheese,” another Slow Food Presidium. Bulgaria's Pirin mountains are home to another sheep breed on the verge of extinction: the Karakachan, also a Slow Food Presidium. Just 800 of these small sheep remain, their thick, fragrant milk used to make unforgettable yogurts are made.
Mixed cow's and sheep's milk cheeses are produced on the Serbian side of Stara Planina. The most famous is Kashkaval, the ancestor of Italy's stretched-curd cheeses. Here it is round in shape and remarkably creamy. Serbia is a country with great agricultural potential and plenty of pasture for livestock farming. Many of the cattle breeds are of Western origin, but one of the hardiest, the small Busha, very resistant to disease and extreme climates, still survives here too. The seasonal migration of livestock, transhumance, still continues in the Mavrovo National Park in Macedonia, on the border with Kosovo. Sharplaninska sheep spend the summers up in high-mountain pastures where the pastoralist-cheesemakers produce Belo Sirene, similar to feta, and excellent Kashkaval, a Slow Food Presidium. In Romania, the typical Branza sheep's cheese is produced throughout the Carpathians, but the finest comes from the Bucegi mountains, where it is aged in fir bark. It too is a Slow Food Presidium.
On the Anatolian Peninsula
Further east, in Turkey, we find a blend of other dairy traditions—Middle Eastern, Asian, Persian, European—rendered unique by the many native livestock breeds, and the fact that a third of Turkey’s plant species are endemic. Hugely varied climates and environments add to the diversity. Indeed, the waters of the Anatolian peninsula flow into five different seas: the Mediterranean, the Black Sea, the Sea of Marmara, the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf.
Different techniques, native breeds, terroir, tradition: Larger than France, this country can easily rival what the world commonly thinks of as the home of cheese. Just the discussion about yogurt, which can be dried, salted or even smoked, was enough to leave our mouths hanging open. Smoked yogurt is made by cooking cow's milk with oak wood until it caramelizes. The final product has a unique fragrance of burnt grass and quite a bitter flavor.
Then comes the infinite world of Tulum, cheeses preserved in sheepskin, like Pergamo cheese or the incredible Konya Karaman Küflü Peynir, which involves an initial aging in sheepskin followed by further aging in caves, where the cheese develops the distinctive blue veining that makes it one of a kind. But it is with the extraordinary diversity of stretched-curd cheeses that Turkey really comes into its own: from the braided cheese of Diyarbakır to Antioch's örgü, as coiled, long and narrow as a rope, to Kerti from Erzurum, which has an unusual shredded texture and notes of fennel and fresh grass.
This brief discussion has only grazed the surface of these Balkan and Turkish treasures, but we hope we have succeeded in communicating something of this fantastic world that is in real danger of disappearing, perhaps even more threatened than traditional dairy production in Western Europe. In the Balkan region, the prevailing belief is that rationalization requires the closure of small-scale dairies that do not meet legal standards. The forced adaptation to EU rules and the standardization of processing techniques in a move towards industrialization are also seriously threatening artisanal production. It would be a terrible waste to see this rich food biodiversity disappear. We must intervene immediately, protecting and raising awareness about these products. Slow Food has already started moving, and we plan to be even more active in the years to come, but we can't do it alone. Europe must look eastwards, otherwise we run the risk of losing a gastronomic heritage with enormous potential.
At Cheese you will have the opportunity to taste many Balkan and Turkish delicacies, including Tcherni Vit green cheese, Sirene cheese and yogurt made from milk from Karakachan sheep, Mavrovo Reka mountain pasture cheeses and Branza de Burduf from the Bucegi mountains, along with many products from the Ark of Taste, such as Mishavin from Albania and Rhodopsko Bito Sirene from Bulgaria.
In Turkey and the Balkans, Slow Food and nine other partners are coordinating the ESSEDRA project, financed by the European Union. The ESSEDRA project aims to support the EU integration process by strengthening the capacity of and giving a voice to civil society organizations in the Balkans and Turkey working in the fields of agriculture, rural development and food quality, thereby improving environmental protection and defending biodiversity and the sustainable well-being of local communities. Support will be given to identify and evaluate traditional local products, and to promote European policies in favor of small-scale food producers.
Translation: Carla Ranicki
Photo: © Alberto Peroli